Disappointment at the White House after Netanyahu victory

Senior US officials were caught by a genuine sense of surprise with word of Isaac Herzog's trouncing.

March 18, 2015 21:19
3 minute read.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his victory speech at Likud headquarters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his victory speech at Likud headquarters. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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LAUSANNE, Switzerland -- Obama administration officials have publicly questioned the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for months, but on Wednesday, they largely remained stoic faced with questions on the prospect of two more years forced to work with the man.

Privately, the White House is expressing deep disappointment with the result of Tuesday's elections, which they believe reinforces some of the greatest points of tension inflaming the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu's comments on the eve of the polls, apparently backing away from his support of a Palestinian state, particularly irked the president's team.

Senior US officials were caught by a genuine sense of surprise with word of Isaac Herzog's trouncing, as they had been relying on the same local polling data available to the public, two such officials told The Jerusalem Post. Other officials declined to characterize the White House reaction, reinforcing a generally muted and controlled response.

After several hours of public quiet, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest expressed "deep concern" with Netanyahu's pre-election warning that Arab citizens were being bused to the polls "in droves," risking right-wing power in the Knesset.

“Rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive, and I can tell you that these are views the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis," Earnest said aboard Air Force One, congratulating the people of Israel for holding the poll.

The administration's strategy for dealing with Netanyahu— reincarnated in an unvarnished, more conservative form— will likely remain unchanged from when problems first arose several years ago. With each passing crisis, the administration has sharpened its rhetoric and public pressure on the prime minister, reminding him of the power dynamic in the relationship and the historic support provided to Israel by the United States.

Washington's positions on Israel and the Palestinian question are long-established, and will remain consistent regardless of who sits as president and prime minister: Unilateral actions from either side are illegitimate, counterproductive and will not earn the support of the US government.

That will continue to apply at the United Nations, though the US suggested for the first time this winter that it might support a non-binding resolution recommitting the United Nations Security Council to the two-state solution. Such a move may constitute a response from the US to Netanyahu's recent devolution on Palestinian statehood.

Nor is the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel by any party— the application of outside pressure through economic power and delegitimization— likely to earn sudden US support. These campaigns are seen in Washington across the political aisle as anti-Israel, and support for such initiatives would undermine the administration's own policy goal of a negotiated solution and fundamentally rattle the relationship.

A comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran represents the greatest policy difference between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama, and with a deal under the gun here in Switzerland, that rift will almost certainly widen further.

Herzog may have taken a different approach. But that much is history; We now know with certainty that Israel will oppose a nuclear deal with all its political might, whether it be through its lobbying power in Congress to its influence in Paris and London.

Despite his best efforts, Netanyahu can do little to stop a deal from proceeding should all five permanent members of the UN Security Council sign off on an accord with Iran. The prime minister will be emboldened, nonetheless, to challenge the deal forcefully, hoisted by election results that seemingly validate his approach of bucking the president.

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